New Brunswick Power’s Point Lepreau nuclear reactor on the Bay of Fundy emits much higher levels of radioactive tritium than other nuclear reactors in Canada. Ingesting and breathing in tritium increases the risk of cancer in humans and other animals.
Tritium is the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and international agencies recognise it as an unusually hazardous radioactive substance. One of its properties is to bind with carbohydrates, proteins and lipids in cells to form organically-bound tritium (OBT) which sticks inside the body for years.
These alarming findings will be tabled on May 10 by the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group in Saint John during Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) hearings on the application by NB Power for an unprecedented 25-year extension of its licence to operate its Lepreau reactor. The CNSC is the regulator of all nuclear activities in Canada.
Although industry scientists in Canada claim tritium has low toxicity and does not bioaccumulate, official reports show tritium is twice to three times more radiotoxic compared to external gamma radiation. And many studies indicate OBT levels increase the longer people are exposed to tritiated water.
Considerable evidence exists – from many epidemiology studies around the world, that children who live near nuclear plants emitting large amounts of tritium are more likely to get leukemia than those living further away. References to all these studies are included in the appendix to the CNSC submission by the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group.
The problem is that Canadian CANDU heavy water reactors emit much larger amounts of tritium than US or European reactors, so the health effects here are very likely to be greater. However the industry and CNSC avoid any studies that could spell trouble for them.
Mainly because of pressure from Canada’s powerful nuclear lobby, safety levels for tritium here are very lax compared to other countries. For example, acceptable levels for tritium in drinking water in Canada are 70 times those in the EU, and approximately 400 times higher than in some US states.
In my expert report for the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, I found that annual tritium releases from the Point Lepreau reactor are very large in comparison with all other nuclear reactors in Canada and indeed in the world.
In 2020, its tritium air emissions were 290 terabecquerels, that’s 290,000,000,000,000 becquerels – which is a huge amount of radioactivity. Worryingly, these releases have been increasing in recent years.
It is well understood that the older a reactor the higher the tritium levels in its moderator and cooling circuits. As well, various operations and maintenance activities increase tritium releases. Without a means of removing tritium, its inventory and releases will continue to increase each year.
These worries are exacerbated by NB Power’s proposed 25-year relicensing from 2022 to 2047. The reactor started operations 40 years ago in 1982 (with retubing between 2008 and 2012). The CNSC has recommended the NB Power nuclear facility is re-licensed to operate for another 20 years to 2042, see the CNSC’s response.
However, this would mean that Lepreau would have operated for 60 years which is unacceptably long as it was originally designed with a 30-year lifespan. This is arguably an unsafe proposal and it flies in the face of the Precautionary Principle, which states that “complete evidence of a potential risk is not required before action is taken to mitigate the effects of the potential risk.”
How does tritium get inside people?
When tritium is emitted from Point Lepreau, it travels via multiple environmental pathways to humans including through air. It cycles in the environment, because tritium atoms swap quickly with stable hydrogen atoms in the biosphere and hydrosphere.
This means that all open water surfaces, rivers, streams and all biota, local crops and foods in open-air markets, animals and humans will become contaminated by tritiated moisture up to ambient levels – that is, up to the air concentrations of the emitted tritium.
According to New Brunswick Power’s environmental assessments, local residents will receive radiation exposures from these tritium emissions, from the tritium in food and water, from the tritium breathed in, and from the tritium absorbed through their skin.
For example, NB Power already admits that people are exposed to radiation from tritiated water vapour in the air, drinking water in local wells, diving for sea urchins, harvesting clams and dulse, and eating local seafood. But local people will also get doses from eating wild foods such as mushrooms, berries and other fruits, gardening vegetables, honey hives, and the harvesting of seaweed for fertiliser.
These are all important matters for Indigenous peoples who take pride in living close to their lands and sea. The continued radioactive poisoning of their lands and sea is deeply offensive to them.
These intakes increase their risk of getting cancer and other radiogenic diseases, but NB Power does not measure tritium levels in people near its Lepreau reactor, nor does it carry out epidemiology studies into ill-health levels in nearby populations.
Nevertheless epidemiology studies at other Canadian facilities which emit tritium all indicate increases in cancer and congenital malformations. In addition, evidence from cell and animal studies, and radiation biology theory, indicates radiogenic effects occur from tritium exposures.
New studies show increased risks
Recent, large, statistically powerful, epidemiology studies of nuclear workers in UK, US and France have increased our perception of the radiation risks of low-level radiation, including tritium. The new studies show a 47% increase in solid cancers and a 580% increase in leukemias. This evidence is directly applicable to tritium’s radiation exposures from Point Lepreau.
These high and increasing tritium emissions, high levels of radioactive contamination, and increased estimates of cancer risk together mean that tritium poses worrying health risks to workers and to people near Lepreau and in the direction of the prevailing winds, including in Saint John.
There is already a long history of NB Power ignoring tritium dangers at Lepreau.
The conclusion from my report for the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, is that Point Lepreau should not be granted any extension of its operating license, far less a 20 year one. As shown by experience around the world, much safer, healthier, less expensive alternatives exist for generation electricity, such as wind turbines, solar panels and tidal schemes.
Dr. Ian Fairlie is an independent citizen scientist based in the UK who has specialised on radioactivity in the environment with degrees in chemistry and radiation biology. His doctoral studies at Imperial College, UK and Princeton University, US examined nuclear waste technologies. One of his areas of expertise is the dosimetric impacts of nuclear reactor emissions, in particular tritium.